Mike Letizia will be part of his 10th home opener with the Johnstown Tomahawks on Saturday night at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial.
The way Letizia views it, there aren’t many venues in the North American Hockey League that can match the atmosphere on big-game nights at the War Memorial, especially those held during the pre-COVID-19 era.
The eighth-year Tomahawks head coach hopes the atmosphere at the arena rivals the previous nine home openers when the Maryland Black Bears visit at 7 p.m.
Johnstown enters the game with a 2-4 record after splitting four games at the season-opening NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minnesota, and dropping a pair of road games to the Northeast Generals last weekend.
There is one aspect surrounding this Johnstown tradition that Letizia would like to see reversed.
The Tomahawks only have won once in their home openers.
Johnstown is 1-5-3 since the ’Hawks arrived in the city in 2012-13.
‘Hard to forget’
“It’s hard to forget the first one. That’s the one that started everything off,” said Letizia, who was an assistant to then-head coach Jason Spence during the team’s first two seasons. “A completely sold-out crowd. Mario Lemieux dropping the puck. Amazing atmosphere. The first-ever game for the organization.
“You never will forget that one.”
A sellout crowd of 3,721 fans watched as the Michigan Warriors beat the Tomahawks 3-2 in an overtime shootout in 2012.
Pittsburgh Penguins Hall of Fame player and owner Lemieux dropped the ceremonial first puck, starting another tradition in which the team has brought in high-profile hockey players and legends as well as Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“The one in 2019-20 season, you remember because we won it,” Letizia said of a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Titans. “Our record in home openers is not in a great standing – but that one, we played a great game. To be honest, those are the two I have the best memories of.”
‘A big game’
Tomahawks assistant coach and former team captain Chris Trouba played in three home openers and missed a fourth due to an injury. This will be his first in his role as developmental coach.
“It’s a big game,” Trouba said. “The fans are a little bit more amped up. It’s awesome to play.
“My favorite memory of the home opener is the one we won (in 2019).
“The War Memorial has a different kind of buzz to it on opening night,” Trouba added. “I’m excited for all the new guys to experience it.
“There are not many junior hockey arenas that get up for the home opener like Johnstown does.”
Traditionally, the crowds have been solid, many over 3,000, for the home opener.
Last year, with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, 1,005 fans were permitted in the nearly 4,000-seat arena. The Maine Nordiques won 3-2 in an overtime shootout.
Tomahawks Director of Business Operations Derek Partsch said there are no restrictions on the crowd for Saturday’s game.
The Tomahawks won the NAHL East Division title last season, but fell to Maryland in a first-round playoff series. The rematch makes this opener even more intriguing.
Letizia has a very different team this season as many of the 2020-21 players aged out and now are competing on NCAA Division I programs.
Johnstown’s top four scorers from last season won’t return as division MVP Jay Ahearn (31 goals, 62 points), Brendan Clark (18 goals, 55 points), John Gelatt (24 goals, 54 points) and Will Margel (23 goals, 51 points) now are in college after combining for 96 goals and 222 points with the Tomahawks last regular season. Goaltender Josh Graziano (12-1-2) won’t be back.
Captain Holt Oliphant, alternate captain Dusty Geregach, forward T.J. Koufis and goaltender Sam Evola possess the most experience.
Defenseman Billy Simms was on the roster last year, but suffered a season-ending broken leg early in the schedule. Simms previously played in 41 NAHL games with Springfield and Lone Star.
“We don’t have a whole lot of guys who have played at the War Memorial,” Letizia said. “For the majority of our team, this is going to be their first game there. The last few years, we were fortunate to play a couple exhibition games there.
“It will definitely be an experience for our guys.
“Hopefully we get the nerves shook out.”
The pandemic has impacted the NAHL in three straight seasons, wiping out the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, causing postponements and other adjustments last year, and still lingering into this campaign.
‘One of a kind’
Prior to COVID, the Tomahawks had a reputation for bringing in big-name celebrities to be part of opening night.
In addition to Lemieux (2012), appearances by former Penguins forward Bill Guerin (2013), NHL legend Bobby Hull (2015), four-time Stanley Cup winner Paul Coffey (2017), Steelers fan favorite Ward (2018) and former Penguins player and current broadcaster Phil Bourque (2019) highlighted opening nights at the War Memorial.
There have been other memorable moments such as a Hawkeyfest celebration in 2014 as well as pre-game fireworks shows that created excitement and a smoke-filled arena while delaying the openers both in 2013 and 2017.
“That’s a special part of it, too, to have those celebrities come in and be a part of the festivities,” Letizia said. “That’s something our organization has done a great job with.”
“It’s one of a kind, for sure,” the former defenseman said. “In our division, there are a handful of arenas that even compare. In my opinion, it’s the best arena in junior hockey to play in.
“Of course, I’m biased. I think all of our players understand and appreciate it.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.